Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland nurse Donna McGavigan in call for rethink on screening age after breast cancer battle

Donna McGavigan with her close friend Frances Jack, who she joined for a screening procedure
Donna McGavigan with her close friend Frances Jack, who she joined for a screening procedure
Donna with Frances and its4women.co.uk marketing manager Kerry Beckett

By Mary Magee

A nurse diagnosed with breast cancer is calling for the Government to lower the age for regular screening.

Donna McGavigan from Strabane was left devastated after being told she had the same illness that killed her parents.

Donna (50) believes a regular mammogram with Action Cancer last year helped save her life.

Currently only women over the age of 50 are called for regular breast screening, although younger women can go to Action Cancer.

Donna, who had annual mammograms when she lived in the US, was shocked to discover that in Northern Ireland the health service did not screen women until they were in their 50s.

Because of the history of cancer in her family, Donna had been going for mammograms since she was 27.

Donna and her friend Frances Jack are supporting Action Cancer's Breast Friends, which is empowering women to raise funds for the unique breast screening service.

As both her parents died of cancer, Donna thought it was a natural progression that she would be called for scans in Northern Ireland while in her 40s.

She soon found mammograms were only carried out for women aged over 50.

She explained: "With my family history I didn't want to wait, so I was delighted to learn of Action Cancer's screening services for women from the age of 40 to 49.

"I have been going religiously every two years since returning from the States with my friend, Frances Jack.

"Frances has been my best friend for as long as I remember and I can't think of a time when she wasn't there in my life."

The pair would go together to Belfast to Action Cancer for the screening or use the Big Bus facility.

In June 2018 they booked the appointments together as usual and were so unconcerned about the results that Donna went on holiday.

However, she recalled: "When I was away, a letter came very quickly from Action Cancer.

"My sister read it to me over the phone, it said I would need further investigations."

She contacted Action Cancer and was told that something had been detected on the scan and she was being referred to the local hospital

Initially Donna did not worry as she would sometimes be called back when she lived in the US and nothing would come of it.

When she went to the nearest breast screening clinic for the appointment, she was there for four hours, having tests and 12 biopsies.

She added: "As a nurse, alarm bells started ringing as this time I wasn't just in and out, I kept getting called for further tests.

"Frances was with me and we just looked at each other."

Her consultant told her that she had the early stages of breast cancer and there was a two millimetre lump in Donna's left breast and two millimetre lumps in her right breast.

"He recommended a lumpectomy in the left and a full mastectomy in the right side," she said.

Donna had other ideas, and told the doctor she wanted the "poison" out of her system.

"Given my family history, I decided I wanted a full mastectomy in both breasts," she added.

There was a cancellation five days later and Donna agreed to go ahead, where she had a full mastectomy and a reconstruction.

After surgery additional cancer was discovered on her left breast.

Donna added: "When I went for surgery I was told that six weeks could make a difference between not having chemotherapy, and death.

"I am glad that I opted for a double mastectomy because had I not, the other cancer would not have been detected. I'm a firm believer that someone was looking out for me.

"The cancer had not been seen on the scans. It was the size of a finger nail and I had not felt it."

Urging people to be aware, she added: "The problem is that people that are being diagnosed are getting younger, so why wait until women are in their 50s?

"We had a cousin who is 38 and her mother died of breast cancer and she pushed and pushed to get a scan on the NHS.

"When she did eventually, thankfully they just found a cyst, but it goes to show that it could have been cancer, but she had to fight for a scan."

After the procedure was over, Donna suffered from bad sickness after the surgery.

"The consultant said I had made a good call as he had detected another area in my left breast during surgery," said Donna.

Donna said she is so thankful to Action Cancer for their early screening, adding: "It could have saved my life."

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